Reflections on the use of humour in drama


A video presentation of this material is available here.


As a general rule, people don’t like to be laughed at (unless, of course, they set out to produce that effect). Humour degrades its target and may threaten the position of that target as the perpetrator of humour points out weaknesses and insecurities in character or may reveal underlying purposes, objectives or ruses behind the manner and style of others.

A humourist may adopt a certain position of (moral) superiority as he/she reveals truths and takes up a stance that offers perspective and overview, and certainly does not bow to automatic or expected respect.

A humourist will frequently display an irreverent attitude which may shock, but which serves a purpose beyond immediate amusement and gratification. It may equally offer dissent or challenge to a commonly held view or an established position or argument, but it may be more effective than straight counterargument as humour engages emotion and personal interest far more readily than does mere intellectual jousting.

In terms of drama and entertainment, for most people light comedy appeals more than heavy drama, though a subtle mixing of the two may produce rewarding results. Comic relief has long been recognised as an essential element in the success of serious works, offering some degree of escape from what might otherwise be judged an overly intense experience, while drama and conflict lend weight and value to what might be considered a pleasant but ultimately vacuous experience.

I would say the key elements in successful comedy/drama are balance and complicity.

Going back to the 17th century, Molière’s comedies reveal many of the social ills of his time but also address several universal social themes such as status, love, parenthood and faith, to name but a few, but he was always careful to maintain a balance between gently mocking comedy and touching emotion bordering on tragedy. He knew the key was to have his audience care for his characters despite their flaws and so while encouraging laughter at his characters’ misjudgements, he fosters emotion and sympathy as the audience sees the potentially tragic results of these misjudgements. To this day, most comedies of note follow a vaguely similar pattern as they promote an underlying threat of (self) destruction with regard to their main characters in order to ensure a degree of emotional engagement on the part of the audience.

Complicity of the audience through previous knowledge and awareness (which, crucially, may not be shared with characters in the production being viewed) will also foster engagement and a sense of “participation” in a production. Just about the ultimate example of this is “Groundhog Day” in which weathercaster Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same (Groundhog) day seemingly endlessly, but only Phil and the audience are privy to the joke.

Much can be achieved through the medium of humour (or the inclusion of humorous elements) that might otherwise be less successful or engaging.

At its core, the above-mentioned “Groundhog Day” is a fable about personal development and evolution through (eventual) consideration of and selfless service to others. Such a naive, simplistic and potentially patronising message had to be handled deftly and with care, and Harold Ramis along with Bill Murray carry it off wonderfully with a series of strangely comical positive-yet-cynical vignettes. These trace Phil Connors’ transformation from self-centred careerist through depressive fatalist and selfish hedonist (willing to use others for his own ends, but equally depending on them), until finally he achieves fulfilment through altruistic acts of kindness and help. The lightness of touch ensures we never dislike Phil (perhaps because he is the ultimate target of the humour of the film) as we share his responses to his outlandish situation, which the humorous tenor of the film allows us to accept and enjoy.

Similarly, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would undoubtedly have been considerably less appealing and successful in terms of engagement, sympathy and empathy if it had been presented as a harrowing battle of wills between a representative of social repression and one of personal freedom. Humour allowed for the humanisation and development of the numerous characters involved, and their struggles and conflicts became all the more touching and affecting because humour encouraged empathy and a sense of solidarity, ultimately emphasising and clarifying the division between the two factions and making the end (and the “message”) all the more effective and moving.

Even the genre of action/adventure films has been augmented and enhanced by the inclusion of humour.

The early Bond films injected a knowing self-awareness and even mockery which added an element of sophistication and entertainment which many have sought to emulate in other productions and which has influenced several of the most successful franchises in cinema history, including “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Mission Impossible” and some Schwarzenegger productions. By incorporating elements of humour in their storylines, writers lighten the emotional load (in itself essential to maintain interest) on audiences and yet build emotional engagement with their characters and draw audiences into their work.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie